In recent months, we’ve learned that reading fiction enhances our ability to feel empathy — and even more recently, we’ve learned that reading fiction increases our brain’s ability to make connections. Since we already knew that neural connections lead to increased empathy — bingo! Read novels, love more.
I can’t imagine a book that will tug harder at your tear ducts than Perfect by Rachel Joyce, which comes out this week. Some of you may have read her last delightful and poignant novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which an Englishman in the early stages of dementia treks hundreds of miles on foot to seek forgiveness from an old friend. If you have, then you’ll know that Joyce doesn’t tell stories in the same way as anyone else. Perfect seems like one thing and turns out to be another, and that “another” packs an emotional wallop.
Joyce, like her fellow British citizen J.K. Rowling, has an affinity for people at the margins — but unlike Rowling’s overly complicated and deeply dark attempt to portray those people in The Casual Vacancy, Joyce’s Perfect retains a certain lightness of tone that comes in part from her focus on the perspective of the marginalized rather than on their caregivers. The novel also beautifully portrays friendships — one between two adolescent boys, and those that exist between older, sadder, but still hopeful people.
If you do read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and want another read like it, I’m going to go back a bit and suggest one of my all-time favorite books about friendship: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Stegner is better known for his (also wonderful) novel Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. Crossing to Safety, released in 1987, follows two couples from a year together in Madison, Wisconsin, through annual summer trips to Vermont. That sounds so staid, so quiet, right? Not a bit: Stegner rips right into the stuff of friendship, exposing its deeply vulnerable heart — especially where inequities exist.